No Coward Soul Is Mine

by Emily Brontë

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 779

In addition to the complex thematic exploration Brontë executes within “No Coward Soul Is Mine,” the poem is also a testament to her technical mastery of the poetic form. The work is organized into seven quatrains, which alternate between lines of tetrameter and pentameter in a series of alternating couplets. The ebb and flow of each stanza’s rotating metrical exchange, which is only heightened through Brontë’s use of rhyme, lends a comforting, lyrical and almost hymn-like resonance to the poem.

Similarly, its meter and rhyme echo the push and pull, give and take, reciprocal relationship the speaker claims to have with God. He is not the distant, untouchable deity presented in the Old Testament; instead, his divinity flows through every living creature on the planet. Indeed, the alternating lines of tetrameter and pentameter could be interpreted as mimicking the pattern of breathing, permeating even the stanzas of the poem itself with life.

The third stanza perhaps best demonstrates Brontë’s brilliant manipulation of language and poetic techniques. She begins the first line of the stanza with the monosyllabic word “vain,” and then ends the second line with the same monosyllable, although this time with the epithet “unutterably.” Devoting the first two lines of the third stanza to vanity, an extension of the sin of pride, the speaker emphasizes how vanity, once indulged, can become all encompassing. The first half of the third stanza thus creates an image of human hubris and corruption that is balanced by its counterpoint in the second half of the stanza, which conveys the futility of any attempt to turn the speaker from God’s true path.

In the last two lines of stanza three, Brontë employs two similes imbued with natural imagery, condemning any attempt to “waken doubt” in her faith as “worthless as withered weeds / Or idlest froth amid the boundless main.” Brontë’s use of alliteration (“worthless as withered weeds”) foregrounds the repeated “w” sound to give the line a wispy and impermanent cadence, highlighting the similarly ephemeral and ineffectual nature of the "doubts" the speaker dismisses. Likewise, by comparing it to weeds, the simile portrays any doubt in God’s omnipotence as an unwanted and intrusive presence that is already beginning to decay. This is targeted imagery, whereas the second simile broadens the conceit to include the infinite ocean and thus seeks to trivialize doubt in comparison to the vastness of the speaker’s faith.

The natural imagery of the similes in stanza three serve as a carefully constructed contrast to the physical temptations that have “moved men’s hearts," further strengthening the thematic link that Brontë builds between nature and God. Nevertheless, perhaps the most unique technical aspect of the third stanza is Bronte’s use of enjambment, a poetic technique where a line is left incomplete and runs into the next without the normal pause. While enjambment within stanzas was a common aspect of nineteenth century poetry, it was somewhat unusual to apply the technique between stanzas at the time.

The enjambment at the end of the third stanza creates a pause that is only exacerbated by its placement between stanzas, as the reader is briefly held in suspense as to what, exactly, the speaker is denouncing so strongly. In some ways, this suspense perhaps mirrors the leap of faith that every believer must undertake, and when the reader reaches the fourth stanza, they are reassured that the speaker’s faith is as strong as ever, “anchored on / The steadfast rock of immortality.” Despite the “boundless main” referenced in stanza three, a possible allegory for the vastness of God’s infinity, the speaker remains anchored by God's immortality and benevolence.

The end of the fourth stanza represents the volta of the poem, wherein the subject of the poem shifts from contemplation of the speaker’s soul and personal relationship with the divine to contemplation of the nature of the divine itself. In the fifth stanza, Brontë captures the multifaceted nature of God through a catalogue of verbs used to describe God’s spirit: “Pervades and broods above, / Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears.” These verbs are featured in pairs, some oxymoronic—"changes" and "sustains" or "dissolves" and "creates"—while others have maternal connotations, such as “creates and rears.”

The oxymoronic and incomprehensible nature of the divine is further highlighted in the final stanza through Brontë’s choice to rhyme “Death” with “Breath.” In this final rhyme, Brontë depicts death as a necessary consequence of life; however, she also draws away any fear that death may invoke by revealing it to be no more than an ephemeral, natural process that remains powerless before the omnipotence of the divine.

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